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Nathan Ballantyne is a philosopher at Fordham University in New York City who focuses on questions about improving human judgment and inquiry. His 2019 book Knowing Our Limits offers a multidisciplinary approach for thinking about controversial topics. In 2018 he received an Academic Cross-Training fellowship from the John Templeton Foundation to build interdisciplinary experience in social psychology and cognitive science. Ballantyne spoke recently with Nate Barksdale, lead writer for the John Templeton Foundation’s “Possibilities” newsletter, about his epistemological journey and his recent work.

How did you get interested in your field?

As an undergraduate student, I commuted from my parents’ home to Victoria College at the University of Toronto. For three hours roundtrip, I travelled on trains, subways, and buses. I packed along a couple books and noise-blocking earplugs—this was years before I owned a laptop or cell phone. The commute was a gift of solitude. Inside certain books, I found worlds made by words that were more absorbing than anything I had encountered before. Early favorites were Pascal’s Pensées, Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations, Augustine’s dialogues on skepticism and his Confessions, and some of Plato’s early dialogues. 

Those philosophers have been gone for centuries, but their writings confront us with enduring questions. What are the limits of human reason? How can we overcome our doubts and know with confidence? Whom should we trust when we can’t know something on our own? Questions like these unsettled me, but I found it somehow easier to be troubled while in the company of literary guides. Perhaps I had the immediate sense, while reading their works, that I wasn’t the only one to feel anxious perplexity about knowledge. Not knowing can be a perfectly acceptable state of mind, even when we desire to know. 

When I’ve asked philosophers and graduate students how they got interested in philosophy, they’ve told me they were hooked by certain problems, or loved research, or wanted to be an inspiring professor. My story is just that I thought some books were completely engrossing, and I wanted to figure out how to write like that

In Pascal’s Pensées, for example, I found a seventeenth-century person who was confronted by strident conflict among philosophical and religious worldviews. Pascal sought to size himself up as a reflective but imperfect being, knowing well the obscurity of his own judgment, the disorders of his society, and the ironies of life. He wrote movingly about some truths he took himself to have discovered and argued that knowing many others was beyond his capacities. Pascal and Descartes had rather different outlooks, but there’s a point of convergence: both tried to impart guidance or advice for making good judgments and wise inquiries. As I think of things now, their ideas were ‘technologies’ for intellectual self-scrutiny. In my research, that’s precisely what I hope to create.

What ‘Big Questions’ do you find yourself most interested in thinking about?

It’s fascinating to me that our prospects as individuals, and as a species, depend on copying and imitating each other’s thinking, and yet this same behavior can prevent us from thinking well.

I am not original in musing about conformity. In the history of philosophy, we find interesting reflections. For instance, Al-Ghazali, a mediaeval Islamic philosopher, scrutinized what he called taqlid—a sort of uncritical emulation of others’ opinions. According to Al-Ghazali, someone’s taqlid won’t survive their finding out what it is. As soon as I learn my beliefs are merely copied from my parents or teachers, for instance, Al-Ghazali says I’ll give up those beliefs. In the early modern period, Montaigne, Pascal, and Jean de La Bruyère cautioned against becoming enslaved to public opinion, and intellectual autonomy was later a theme in works by Kant and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

In recent years, philosophers have said surprisingly little about conformity. But after the Second World War, the topic became a pivotal theme in the social sciences. The war’s devastation compelled scholars to reflect anew on human nature and group behavior. How could so many citizens, even in countries that had been democratic, believe in lockstep with authoritarian regimes? What kind of intellectual outlook is open and flexible enough to secure a tolerant, liberal society? 

The notion that human beings are “rational animals” has taken a beating over the years, but I want to understand how our striving to be more rational in our thinking fits together with facts about our tendency to conform. We are, in certain respects, like herd animals; so, what becomes of our efforts to secure knowledge and make sense of reality? The topic offers a teachable moment, possibly an occasion for greater humility and empathy.

What do you find yourself most wanting to communicate to those outside your field?

Scientists and academics regularly try to determine how to know things; but popular discourse and informal inquiry often looks more like an undisciplined free-for-all. Even those who trenchantly wield epistemological questions in their research often fail to do similarly when judging matters outside their training and expertise. We can all benefit from learning how to pose such questions and stubbornly try to find answers.

Consider the world of pundits and punditry to illustrate. Events happen and pundits race to explain to us what’s going on. They may appear to be sharing knowledge or insight, and sometimes they do, but fundamentally they are opinion-makers. In the past, a professional class of pundits chattered about issues du jour. Today, the pros have been joined by people armed with internet-connected devices. Pundits tend to see themselves as telling the sober truth and laying waste to misguided views. We prize them for their winning confidence, slick rhetoric, and substantial followings. Many of us can’t stop listening and nodding, clicking and swiping. Opinionated human beings are nothing new, but the internet age has created an immense record of opinions.

If you observe pundits over months and years, you will probably begin to recognize that most of them are not so knowledgeable about many of the topics on which they comment. How can they be? Understanding the workings of more than a few areas of inquiry is breathtakingly hard, human knowledge often is tentative, and effective punditry requires obliterating nuance. Pundits are fast, fluent, and can spin off ideas that resonate with their audiences. Even so, I’ve come to see punditry as the confidence of the ignorant passed along to the uncertain.

I believe in the power of epistemological questions to dull the noise of punditry. How do we know what is true? What kind of evidence or methods are needed to know? Who should I trust? What do I know? Pundits and their followers clamor for our attention. But epistemological questions fix our attention on what matters—evidence, facts, and methods for good inquiry. If we sit patiently with these questions, and cultivate the art of posing them and seeking answers, we can get on with trying to know more. Good questions can sometimes teach us more than our preferred pundits can.

How is your current work shaping your perspective on our current national crises? 

Following the U.S. elections in November 2020, President Obama remarked in an interview: “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work… We are entering into an epistemological crisis.” Arguably, some such crisis is an ongoing feature of modernity. I would contend we aren’t “entering” a crisis at all. We are already there. And if we use the language of crisis, we should think about multiple, overlapping crises.

I see some rough continuities between present and past epistemological troubles. In early modern Europe, philosophers like John Locke and Mary Wollstonecraft wrote on ideas about intellectual formation. How should we educate people when overconfidence, dogmatism, and apathy toward truth are commonplace? The question rings contemporary, but it’s not.

Some researchers will tell us about the spread of misinformation online, the failures of traditional media, the need for better science communication, access to education, the practice of democratic citizenship, and so forth. All for the good. The spot I’m trying to dig in my shovel is a bit different: I want to understand how we can design better belief-forming methods. Our epistemological crises implicate everything from online communication networks to classrooms to cognitive processes. We must grapple with what sort of thinker we mean to encourage. What sort of mindsets and tools for good reasoning could possibly allow us to manage informational confusion and our own biases?

Recently I’ve been thinking about gaps and errors in our understanding of how to persuade others. In debate, partisans sometimes talk past one another, giving reasons that might sound convincing to their side but don’t move their opponents.

While trying to make sense of debate deadlock, I started wondering about an idea from military strategy called “the fog of war”. The metaphorical fog is due to poor intelligence about one’s enemy. It struck me there was an analogous notion that could apply when we try to persuade others that we’re right and they’re wrong. I called this “the fog of debate”. The fog metaphor helps us analyze the failures and dysfunctions of argumentative persuasion that flow from our poor information about our opponents. It’s easy to make mistakes about their thinking and their reactions to our arguments, and understanding the fog of debate can suggest where things go awry.

What books or other cultural products have you found yourself thinking a lot about recently?

Over the last year, I’ve read a half dozen books by authors from distant times and places who wrote brief reflections—pensées. I might read a few pages in a spare moment. La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims and Joseph Joubert’s Notebooks are spellbinding. Their reflections on virtue, vice, knowledge, and moral psychology are worth thinking about in light of recent ideas from philosophy and psychology. 

And I’ll mention a film: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation (BBC, 2016) is a detour from conventional thinking about politics and history. Curtis explores the idea that political and economic elites since the 1970s have told people stories that don’t line up with reality. He contends that, at the level of ideology, we are stuck in a kind of fantasy where things don’t make sense. If there is a word for films that stimulate epistemological thought, I don’t know it. (“Epistemic cinema” perhaps?) That is how I would classify Curtis’s films, anyway. Curtis uses narrative, image, and music to suggest immense but often stealthy influences upon our beliefs and worldviews. In his stories, the interconnected forces of media, politics, and technology conspire to prevent us seeing ourselves and our world clearly. His films always jolt me into new thought, marvel, and sometimes even suspicion. What’s real and what do we really know about it?

STILL CURIOUS?

Explore Nathan Ballantyne’s academic work on Epistemic Tresspassing

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